Iran’s presidential election, which is taking place at a critical juncture for the country, is being overshadowed by expectations of low voter turnout. For several months, political commentators and pollsters in Iran have been noting high levels of voter apathy. With the election process now formally underway, most of the candidates who have registered are uninspiring, and the few who might be able to mobilize voters are unlikely to be allowed to run by the Guardian Council. Low turnout seems assured.
But perhaps low turnout was also to be expected. Low turnout is a commonplace political response to economic shocks. Iran is now emerging from three years of economic crisis, spurred by the reimposition of US secondary sanctions in May 2018 and compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters are predominantly concerned with the country’s economic situation, marked by high inflation, high unemployment, and growing economic inequality. But at the same time, voters are skeptical that the government has the means to address these problems and are therefore doubtful that their votes will make much of a difference.
In a poll conducted in March by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), a well-respected pollster, respondents were asked what issues should top the next government’s agenda. Notably, barely 10 percent of respondents pointed to national security as the key priority, suggesting that figures such as former IRGC Brigadier General and Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan will not be able to rely on their national security experience to win over voters. Candidates will be judged based on their ability to address three main issues, all of which pertain to Iran’s economic situation.
A plurality of respondents to the ISPA poll – 31 percent – indicated that “justice” should be the priority. While concerns around injustice encompass a range of issues including income inequality and the urban/rural divide, corruption has become perhaps the most highly charged political issue in Iran. Much of the voter apathy stems from the perception that the political class is principally interested in self-enrichment. Candidates such as Ebrahim Raisi, who as the current head of the judiciary has portrayed himself as a crusader against corruption, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president who has cast himself as a populist champion who will speak truth to power, offer two very different visions of how to make the government more just (Ahmadinejad has registered for the election but is also likely to be disqualified). But the issue of corruption is not merely about laws and their enforcement. Corruption has become politically salient because of the general economic malaise. Ordinary Iranians are increasingly outraged by kickbacks, nepotism, misappropriations, and arbitrage as their own economic fortunes worsen.
Measures for the government to address these underlying economic challenges were also among the priorities highlighted in the survey. An equal proportion of respondents – 20 percent – pointed to improving relations with foreign countries and supporting domestic production as key priorities. These responses reflect the two visions for how Iran can best grow its economy. On one hand, there is the aim of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough in order to secure sanctions relief. On the other hand, there is the aim of decreasing dependence on the global economy by creating what Iranian leaders call a “resistance economy.”
While politicians often present these approaches as dueling philosophies for development, in reality there is a growing consensus among Iranian policymakers that a combination of approaches is necessary. The development of domestic manufacturing is critical, but it cannot be achieved without the technology transfers and investment made possible by the lifting of sanctions, which in turn would enable greater growth in lucrative exports for Iranian industries. This emergent consensus has been reflected in the ways that candidates have tried to appeal to voters by highlighting their commitment to both approaches. The governor of Iran’s central bank, Abdolnasser Hemmati, is making a bid for the presidency, hoping to parlay his success in improving Iran’s economic situation since taking office in 2018 shortly after President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran. Saeed Mohammad, who has registered for the election but is also likely to be disqualified, has underlined his experience in “circumventing sanctions” as the head of Khatam al-Anbiya, a major engineering and construction firm controlled by the IRGC. While Hemmati rose to prominence as a key figure of Iran’s economic diplomacy, visiting countries like China and Iraq to advance Iran’s interests, Mohammad has vowed to use “international capacities” to pursue the removal of sanctions, citing the Iran nuclear deal as an agreement that the Iranian government is committed to uphold.
Priorities aside, Iranian voters are skeptical that their vote matters. In the same ISPA poll, 28 percent of respondents stated that voter participation can have a significant impact in addressing the challenges facing the country. But an equal proportion – 27 percent – stated that voter participation would have no impact whatsoever. The expected low voter turnout has been described by observers inside and outside of Iran as a threat to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself, with voter apathy associated with the apparent demise of the reformist bloc and the diminished prospect of political and economic reform more generally. This diagnosis may be accurate when looking to the concerns of the middle class, which sees the political establishment as sclerotic. The presidents who exemplified middle class priorities for Iran – Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani – were thwarted by the wider political system, leaving most of their economic and social agendas unimplemented. But the issue of apathy extends beyond middle class voters to the working class and rural electorate that more conversative candidates have readily mobilized in past years.
As Kevan Harris and Daniel Tavana identified in their major 2016 survey, 87 percent of Iranians “do not closely identify with a national faction,” despite the fact that 75 percent of Iranians indicated that they are “interested in politics.” Iranians clearly have strong views on what the priorities should be for their government, and they remain interested in politics, yet they do not widely identify with political factions and are increasingly skeptical that taking part in elections can impact government policy. Taken together, these facts lend the issue of voter apathy in Iran a much more quotidian aspect than the doubts about legitimacy portrayed in foreign media.
There is a significant body of social science research suggesting that voter turnout is depressed in the aftermath of economic crises, particularly those induced by an exogenous shock. Evidence from around the globe suggests that economic distress does not make people less political, and in Iran rolling protests and worker mobilizations did increase as economic conditions worsened. Still, such distress does appear to undermine confidence in government and contribute to a general sense of hopelessness, making it more difficult to mobilize voters during elections.
Measuring this phenomenon in Iran would be a worthy, but challenging project for social scientists. Iran did not experience significant economic recessions between the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the imposition of financial sanctions in 2012, when Iran’s economy shrank 7 percent. While turnout fell from around 85% to 76% between the 2009 and 2013 elections, part of that decline may be attributable to the political fallout from Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory in 2009. The fact that turnout did not fall more precipitously between 2009 and 2013 suggests that dramatically lower turnout this year would more likely reflect skepticism about government capacity after three years of deep economic recession than concerns around legitimacy.
Should the Iranian public continue to perceive the country’s executive and parliament as inept and incapable of addressing the country’s fundamental economic challenges, its doubts around capacity will no doubt slide further towards doubts about legitimacy. But the likely restoration of the Iran nuclear deal and the country’s tentative post-pandemic recovery has created a short window for technocratic leadership to restore some confidence in the connection between political participation and government policy, as was achieved fleetingly during the first term of the Rouhani administration. Those Iranian voters who vote in this election will not be doing so as “reformists” nor “hardliners”, and they are unlikely to select their candidate out of allegiance to a bloc. Their votes will be issued in the hope that whoever is elected will be able to alleviate economic distress.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is the Founder and CEO of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, a think tank committed to economic diplomacy, economic development, and economic justice in the Middle East and Central Asia. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
On Twitter: @yarbatman
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.